Shared Legacies, the Alfred Duggan-Cronin and Edward S. Curtis Photographs, is a fascinating exhibition that forces us to reconsider our approach to photographs taken for anthropological purposes.
What sets this exhibition apart from others with similar photographs is it's rendering of visual documentation as artistic.
In this display of indigenous peoples in southern Africa and North America, the viewer is invited, not to regard those photographed as objects, but as people with a personal history – someone not unlike you or me.
Displaying these portraits is a clever subversion of our historical approach to photographs of various cultures.
The faces that look out of the frames cannot now be considered as part of a collective whole, valuable only for their particular cultural affiliation, but as individuals whose agency has been restored through recognition of their individuality.
Setting the atmosphere
In the cool quiet room, there is no escaping their gaze, or your own reflection in the glass that stares back through the eyes of another.
Quotations scattered between frames reveal photographers’ difficulty in capturing such images. The thought that abounds here is that to photograph is to violate, most especially when the photographer is expected to treat his subject as only having some sort of anthropological value to another part of the world.
The premeditated response to these images is to regard them as portraits, and portraits only. Initially, not to look only at the various cultures presented makes for uncomfortable viewing. But perhaps the point is to make the viewer as uncomfortable as the subject felt when their personal space was intruded upon, and as uncomfortable as the photographer felt in capturing these images.
One portrait shows a mother cradling a child against her breast. A blanket hangs loosely around them, and her hands rest gently on the small body. A miniature hand rests between her breasts; with eyes half-closed, the child is entirely dependent on her protection.
Her cultural identity is declared null in this frame. This mother could be any mother across the globe; she is rendered universal in that motherhood is a shared identity, irrespective of culture.
Shared Legacies gives the public an opportunity to engage with the photographs, not be distanced from them. Here we can look at each portrait carefully and realise that the soul captured on that film continues to live on through the photograph.
Dignity is restored through the medium that once infringed upon it. This time, we not only see the subject in front of us, but also the photographer behind the frame.
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